Wildlife conservation – could try harder

March 10, 2014 by Cameron Frecklington

Relentlessly optimistic, Dr. Tony Whitten embodies the attitude that all wildlife conservation advocates must possess. Whitten, Regional Director for international conservation NGO Fauna & Flora International, says that conservationism is no easy field to be in, and that without hope, the battle is lost before the fight begins.

When Whitten, former World Bank Senior Biodiversity Specialist for East Asia and the Pacific Region, speaks of China’s progress with regards to conservation, his glass-half-full attitude is infectious.

“In China, more so than in any other country I frequent, every time I go away, when I return it [the wildlife conservation and illegal trade situation] has changed for the better,” says Whitten.

“It is like a parent who does not see their child for a period of time and then realizes how much that child has grown up when they meet again.”

Whitten is likely buoyed by a January 6 public ivory crush by China’s State Forestry Administration and General Administration for Customs in the southern city of Dongguan, as well as the successes of Operation Cobra II, an anti-poaching and smuggling operation involving 28 countries and resulting in 400 arrests that concluded in February, with China playing a key role in the crackdown.

Despite the intensified focus by the Chinese government on China’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade, skeptics remained unconvinced. While most applaud the public destruction of ivory, some say much more needs to be done.

“The ivory crush in Dongguan is only the first step in stigmatizing elephant ivory.  The problem is solvable only if the government take immediate steps to make laws clear and unambiguous,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Peter Li, China Policy Consultant for The Humane Society International (HSI) agrees.

“To fully participate in the global battle for elephants, the Chinese authorities have more to do,” says Li.

Li says that the Chinese authorities need to focus on four areas if real success is to be achieved: banning the domestic trade of ivory in its entirety, removing all ivory artifacts and decorations from government facilities, prohibiting Chinese companies from working in Africa if an employee is found trafficking ivory, and helping ivory carvers transition into other professions.

The numbers regarding China’s involvement in the illegal trade of ivory paint a poor picture for a country striving to join the world’s advanced nations. According to estimates from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based international wildlife organization, two-thirds of the world’s illegal ivory makes its way to China from countries such as South Africa and Kenya, often via the Middle East.

Further estimates from the WCS state that 8 out of every 10 elephant deaths are a result of poaching, resulting in an estimated 96 elephants killed every day in Africa.

Does simple math mean that China is responsible for 5 in every 8 elephant deaths? Likely not, but as conservationist and activists will tell you the world over, it is demand that fuels the illegal wildlife trade.

Despite knowing this, Whitten remains cautiously optimistic.

“They did it [crushed the ivory]. That can’t be taken back. And it was public. It made the news, and it got people talking”.

When the possibility of one-upmanship was raised (China crushed 6.1 tons of ivory, a mere 0.1 tons more than the U.S. destroyed in November last year) as well as the suggestion that China was seeking to relieve pressure ahead of the February 12-13 London Conference on International Wildlife Trafficking, Whitten brushed off criticisms with ease.

“Maybe it was timed. But if it was, if the 6.1 tons is surpassed and China falls to second, then maybe it forces them to act again. Maybe they will destroy more of their stockpile.”

“It does no good to decry such positive actions.”

And already results are being seen. Since the U.S. and China ivory crushes (the Philippines was the first outside Africa to destroy ivory publicly in June 2013), a number of countries have joined the fight. Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department’s Endangered Species Advisory Committee announced in late January that it will begin incinerating its 30-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory sometime in 2014 while France fed three tons of illegal ivory into a pulverizer just days before the London symposium.

However, it is not only ivory that is cause for concern. From rhino horn to tiger pelts to pangolin (scaly anteater) meat and scales, China is where much of the world’s illegally traded wildlife products end up.

Long prized in the annals of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), rhino horn is thought is be effective in reducing fever and convulsions while also cleansing the liver. The use of rhino horn, commonly ground into a powder then stirred into hot water, was banned for use in China by the State Council in 1993, although the TCM industry had already begun to move away from using rhino horn prior to the ban according to Ge Gabriel.

“What we [the IFAW] found was that rhino horn consumption in China is not for TCM anymore, but as collectibles and for investment’” says Ge Gabriel.

“Even when rhino horn was used in TCM in China, it was used to reduce fever, not for treating cancer as the demand in Vietnam was after [the horn as a cure for cancer rumours came from an unsubstantiated report involving an unnamed politician].”

Indeed, it is a common misconception that the blame for the world’s declining rhino numbers lies with China when two-thirds of the illegally traded horn actually goes to Vietnam, the remaining third to China.

Regardless of where the rhino horn is ending up, if something is not done soon it will be too late. According to statistics from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, 2013 was the worst year on record with regards to rhino poaching, with over 1,000 animals falling in the name of imagined health benefits and swagger. That is an increase of over 200 percent from the 333 recorded rhino deaths in 2010.

While rhino horn and other animal derivatives such as tiger bones have been banned in TCM for more than 20 years, products such as tiger bone wine do exist. One reason for that is a wildlife protection law that sends mixed messages.

“The big challenge for wildlife conservation in China is that the Wildlife Protection Law favours wildlife utilization over protection. Under this pro-use law, even highly endangered species such as tigers and bears are allowed to be bred for the trade of their parts and derivatives,” says Ge Gabriel.

“This ‘use’ objective of the Law has, since its implementation in 1989, been a huge roadblock to its enforcement. The law confuses the people and serves to undermine the state’s efforts to protect wild animals,” says Li.

And while the defenders of China’s notorious tiger farms have stated that the farms satisfy demand while protecting wild tiger population numbers, critics have argued that the high cost of raising a tiger and the diminished stigma of utilizing tiger derivative products has led to an increase in tiger poaching, primarily from India. There is also a belief among some Chinese that wild animals and their derivative products are more potent than those raised on farms.

The situation is dire, make no mistake about it. Many of the world’s endangered animals face a bleak future if action is not taken. However, there may be hope if one knows where to look.

Yao Ming, once known for his interior defence and sweet outside shot in professional basketball in the United States, has parlayed the fame that comes with being an international celebrity and channeled it towards wildlife conservation. His series of ads against shark fin soup and the inhumane act of shark finning (cutting the shark’s fin off and dropping the still-alive body overboard to sink and suffocate) has helped raise awareness on the issue in China immensely.

Ho Siu-chai, Chairman of the Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association, told the South China Morning Post in January 2013 that the entire industry had experienced a drop in sales of around 50 percent and that 30 percent of stores that sold shark fin have closed down, others choosing to sell other dried seafood.

Peter Knight, executive director of conservation NGO WildAid, told the Washington Post in October 2013 that his organization’s research showed that consumption of shark fin soup throughout China was down 50 to 70 percent since 2011.

Again, critics will argue that the decline in shark fin soup demand stems not from Yao Ming’s efforts or changing attitudes towards demand but from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mandate banning shark fin soup from official banquets. However, President Xi’s official directive was only issued in late 2013, which would not explain the drop since 2011.

“It is almost impossible to measure [the impact of celebrity and social media awareness campaigns]. Cynics say that it is only the young people on social media, that they [the buyers of illegal wildlife products] don’t use social media. But it was not the over-50s who first got involved with seatbelts. It was not the over-50s who started the anti-smoking movement,” says Dr. Whitten.

Not content to attack the trafficking situation with Chinese ambassadors Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, WildAid has now enlisted two of the most recognizable Western celebrities in China to help their cause: David Beckham and Prince William.

On the heels of the London Conference, WildAid released a public service announcement (PSA) video starring Beckham and the Duke of Cambridge alongside Yao Ming and a herd of digitally-generated rhinos. The PSA is one in a series that is to be shown throughout Asia in hopes of reaching the masses, each ending with the slogan “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”

And there has been some progress. According to Ge Gabriel, thanks to tireless campaigns by the IFAW involving relentless pressure on China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA), 2012 saw a dramatic decrease in the monies taken by Chinese auction houses in the trade of illegal wildlife products.

Due to a tip-off in 2011, the IFAW managed to block an auction of rhino and tiger products and get an emergency notice issued by the SFA reminding all auction houses of the 1993 ban. As a result, sales volume across Chinese auction houses fell by 30-40 percent, primarily due to the “big-ticket items” of ivory, rhino horn, and tiger bone products missing from auction catalogues.

The battle is far from won, and much work is yet to be done. However, if China decides to join the fight wholeheartedly instead of sending mixed signals and turning a blind eye, then a ripple effect will be felt the world over.

When asked about China’s conservation efforts, Dr. Whitten draws once again on his parental analogy.

“It is like that internal school report card that parents get. China’s would read ‘Progressing, could try harder’”.

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